What is Wisdom, and where do I find it?

These are all my personal opinions and do not reflect that of Woodenfish.

I’m sure we’ve run into many smart people, but can we call them all wise?

I’ve had the opportunity this past weekend to organize a conference in Shenzhen, China called Buddhism, Science, and Future: Brain Science and Mental Well-Being. I, working with the Woodenfish foundation, invited neuroscientists, psychologists, Buddhists, and entrepreneurs from all around the world to talk about how Buddhism and science have clashed, interacted, and can work towards the same goal of learning something about our humanity. While listening to the presentations and discussions, I kept thinking about that ultimate wisdom of our humanity.

Many scientists and entrepreneurs are utilizing new tech to make the mindfulness and wisdom landmark in Buddhism more accessible. For example, neuroscientists used EEGs to monitor brain activity of lifelong meditators, and when compared to that of a lay person, the results were vastly different. A speaker developed E-Meditation retreats that combine electrical or audial signals to stimulate the brain in specific regions to increase effectivity of meditation. These are all used to grasp the feeling of inner peace, equanimity, and clear-headedness that has become the prized fruit of Buddhism and meditation. On some extreme cases, there are some who expose themselves to excruciating pain (wearing gloves with biting insects inside) to tap into some higher state of consciousness. These were new ideas that were being discussed in relation to Buddhism, and one monk objected that these practices were “sacrilegious”.

I could understand why he felt that way. Having grown up in a Buddhist environment, I do hold onto more traditional views of Buddhism. Is altering and stimulating your mind with electricity to help meditation and attain “enlightenment” blasphemous? I sure felt that way before. But I was learning to be more open-minded, as a theme of the conference was thinking about how Buddhism and science can be evolving together. I’ve studied religion (particularly Buddhism) in college, and have learned that the religion has been packaged in different ways throughout time and space to mold into different cultures. Buddhism brought from India to China went through a transformation incorporating rhetoric and ideas from Daoism and Confucianism. Perhaps the way Buddhism is accessible now to the future generations is through the lens of science. *I am intrigued with this idea and have many thoughts, I plan to write more on this in the future!*

I appreciate Venerable Yifa’s quote:

“When the Buddha went down to sit under that bodhi tree, he wasn’t thinking ‘I want to create one of the world’s largest organized religions.’ He just wanted to understand and end his suffering.” (paraphrased)

What this quote means for me, is that maybe the importance of Buddhism isn’t following everything that the Buddha did down to the T. I know I’ve gotten caught up in the small details – sitting in full lotus position while meditating is more important than noting and mindfulness, memorizing chants and sutras word for word, having to meditate while sitting still, etc. After all, his original goal was to just see the nature of suffering and overcome it. And that is accessible through different means, especially in different cultures throughout the world.

Throughout the conference, speakers were describing their “higher-consciousness” experiences and lessons through different words and practices – trans-personal psychology, feeling one with the universe, shamanism, universal empathy, etc. One speaker expressed very respectably to the objecting monk that perhaps people are just trying to climb the same mountain to reach this same “wisdom”, albeit through different methods. That sounded all nice and inclusive, but I found myself unable to accept that wisdom was on top of some mountain. I think the metaphor of wisdom being on a high mountain is very attractive yet misleading – if we work hard and climb high enough, we’ll attain a higher wisdom and be happy. Through my personal experience in meditation, I found that wisdom wasn’t in any high up place, but that it was with me all along.

I recall my meditation practice in Japan/China 4 years ago in 2015, I struggled the most with my leg pain when meditating. I always got frustrated that I couldn’t stay still and sit without my leg starting to get painful. I wrote about this in a previous post, but to make a long story short – I realized that it wasn’t the pain that was causing my suffering but my anger towards the pain. Here’s a metaphor: When I’m in a cafe writing or working, I notice the cafe-chatter in the background, but it doesn’t anger me or hinder my focus. And that’s how I treated the pain in my leg – like noise in the background of my main focus of breathing and meditating. And when I didn’t attach any dislike to the pressure on my leg,  thoughts of anger and frustration vanished. I feel that this “wisdom” of un-attachment and impermanence is similar (if not identical) to the wisdom taught in Buddhism. And this wisdom wasn’t somewhere high up on the mountain that would take years of struggle and meditation to reach.

Meditation was a tool to peel back the layers of illusion and junk that clouded the mind. I’m not an expert, but I feel that this matches the Buddhist metaphors of “calming the monkey mind” or “purifying the mind.” So I think that thinking of meditation as a struggle up a mountain to attain enlightenment and wisdom can be fallacious, because the “wisdom” is in fact everywhere. Paralleling Japanese Zen Buddhist teachings, everything has Buddha nature. When the Zen master draws the Zen Enso (circle), it embodies the ultimate nature of reality as flawed yet perfect, and impermanent thus beautiful. When a dog barks, it embodies Buddha nature as it is acting without a polluted mind in its true nature. The wisdom I gained about impermanence was everywhere all along, as long as I just sat down and looked.

If you’ve read up to here, I sincerely thank you for reading my thoughts on this topic! It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Please comment and leave feedback for me on what you’d like me to talk about next, and I’d love to write about it.

 

Airplane Conversation between a Buddhist and a Christian

I was on a plane from JFK to Shanghai, and I asked the flight attendant if I could move to a free seat in front of for more room. After I got the thumbs up, I grabbed my backpack and moved to the next row, settling down in a seat next to somebody else. I felt a little guilty, he could’ve had a free seat next to him, but I took it so I could have more room. We exchanged glances, then introduced ourselves.

“You seem very happy and satisfied with your life.”

That took me by surprise, especially because I was thinking the exact same thing about him – that he was the one who looked content.

“Thank you, I’m pretty happy right now, I would say about 80% satisfied with my life.”
We talked more and I learned that he was from Korea and worked at a Christian church, he had been in Philadelphia to attend a Christian conference. That was a coincidence! Since I was heading to China to attend to a Buddhist conference. He had a calm aura around him, and I could tell that he himself had struggled a lot to get to where he was today. Having been conflicted with my faith in Christianity before, I asked him if he was always a Christian.

He went on and told me that no, he didn’t believe in any religion until he was in college. He had a powerful experience during a sermon with a professor, marking a turning point in his life when he was saved. I feel that the younger me would’ve dismissed a religious salvation story like this and arrogantly turned my head away, but I’ve had my share of transformations with faith during college, so I listened with an open heart.
He engaged in an empowering ritual everyday that I found relatable – confession. I thought it was empowering, the act of confiding in God to admit to sins you had committed that day. When I was younger, I couldn’t really relate to the necessity of absolving guilt. I hadn’t had the responsibility or authority to do anything important, especially to other people. But over the course of college, I’ve done things that have etched guilt in my conscience. I know that this guilt has not been a good influence in my life – making me think that I couldn’t believe in myself, making me believe that I was not a good person. Coming from my Buddhist point of view, I thought the act of confessing could really help someone live with themselves and move forward.
I told him that I was 80% satisfied with my life, and the 20% of dissatisfaction came from the frustrations I had with myself. I get frustrated when I say I want to exercise but end up staying home, frustrated when I want to be a certain way but end up doing the opposite.
He pulled out his mobile Bible and read me a verse from the book of Matthew 11:28-30

28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

He said something that was very similar to how I think Buddhists see the world. He told me that humanity is full of toil and suffering. We hurt ourselves when we can’t achieve what we want, or even when we do achieve what we want. He used to feel that way all the time – he had started a cosmetics business in Korea and was “successful”. However, he was still suffering because he kept wanting more. Later, he found refuge in this Bible verse. He told me that God is meek and lowly in heart, meaning that he didn’t have a high ego. So even if you fail – if you look ugly and feel shame, you can take refuge in God. I thought of this like ugly crying to a friend when you feel like you have failed. I feel that there are some parallels with how Buddhists and Christians (the Christianity described by him) deals with suffering and stress. The overlapping sentiment is to not dwell or attach to the suffering. The rhetoric each religion uses is different and in affect symbolize how we humans deal with our suffering. I am not saying that any one way is correct or incorrect. In my perspective, Buddhists place the emphasis on the individual to let go of fetters like greed, anger, ill-will. But Christians place the emphasis finding refuge through a higher being who carries no sins like greed or anger, in turn humbling themselves.

I believe that isn’t right to dismiss people if they don’t believe in the same things you do. I know it is easy to cultivate an “us vs them” mentality and draw boundaries, because I have been guilty of doing that many times myself. But I’ve learned a lot about my humanity talking to him.

It was very moving to hear how Christianity had saved him and changed his life for the better. When growing up, he hated his father for being an alcoholic who beat him. But, through his faith he has opened his heart to him and forgiven him, praying for him everyday. I think that kind of transformation through faith is amazing.
He had bullied his little brother during school because his brother was not as “smart” as him, and that had ruined their relationship since. The first thing he knew he had to do after being saved was to apologize – he knelt down in front of his younger brother and sincerely apologized for the hurt he had caused. And now, they are growing closer together, and I think that is really beautiful.

I do not believe in all the things that he does, but we share a common thread which is that we are both human. And I have learned a lot about our humanity and how faith can transform it.

Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, or Spirituality?

When I visited New York a couple of months ago, a student at Columbia University asked me this question: Would you consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy? I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall it being a half-baked answer skirting on the edges of classifying Buddhism as a philosophy. After all, many young people in the West do consider Buddhism as a doctrine about cause and effect, seeing most rituals and chants as moot. I grew up in a Buddhist household, attended temple rituals and ceremonies, yet still found myself doubting that Buddhism should be considered a religion. For me, religion was connected with worshipping god(s), like Christianity or Islam. But in Buddhism, there was no god to praise or worship. I’m sure that many would agree that Buddhism is in fact a way of life.

However, my view has come to change on this during my stay here at a monastic program (Woodenfish) in the Longquan Monastery in Shanxi, China. Let’s begin with the term spirituality.

I think it’s a fairly modern concept, and most people I know would rather be aligned as spiritual rather than a radical religious. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette, a professor at Woodenfish, opened his lecture about spirituality that spirituality had an attitude of “whatever.” It puts the individual at the center of the universe, makes people selfish and unhappy. It allows people to cherrypick whatever you like, but the dangerous part is that it can lead to dismissing what we don’t yet understand or what challenges us. If we are trying to learn, we need to relinquish our authority. For example, if we are learning how to make a chair, we would go to somebody who already knows how to make a chair. If we want to learn how to meditate, we should go to a monastery where they have established practices to teach meditation. This motivation behind cherrypicking in spirituality also translates over to the fractious nature of religions institutions and political parties. There is a loss of commitment to something greater, especially something that challenges us. And being our own authority can put a lot of stress on ourself to make the perfect decisions among a sea of options.

Philosophy, from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally translates to “love of wisdom.” And refers to the study of things like knowledge, existence, what we should or should not do, language, reason, etc. And from my experience of studying philosophy in college, has a categorical/classifying nature that can seem cold.

Religion, from Latin religio, means “that which binds us together.” As opposed to philosophy, religion feels more warm and human, dealing with things like love, death, passion, birth, etc. And religion can ben seen as having 7 dimensions.

7 Dimensions of Religion

1. Practical and Ritual – In Buddhism, rituals are seen not as an end in itself. Sacrifices, baptism, etc.

2. Experiential and Emotional – Meditative jhanas, metta (loving kindness), desire to convert others

3. Narrative and Mythic – Religions have rich, emotional narratives or myths. While myths are generally looked down upon in the present because of their lack of proof, these stories motivate us to strive for things greater than us. They give us hope.

4. Doctrinal and Philosophical – I believe this is where many people would put Buddhism into, but Buddhism is much more than just a philosophy.

5. Ethical and Legal – 5 Precepts, 10 Commandments, etc.

6. Social and Institutional – monasteries, interactions between laymen and monks/nuns, interactions between people and priests.

7. Material – artwork, clothing, bowls.

And having these 7 dimensions implies that there are many different ways we can enter into religion. For me, my entrance into Buddhism came from the experiential and philosophical dimensions.

For me, this added a lot more depth to religion. Religions are in fact deeply rooted in history and culture. There are also many recurring themes among religions, for example, how the mythological monomyth (hero’s journey) is apparent in many religious narratives. Studying Buddhism academically in the Woodenfish program has been very interesting and challenging, making myself ask questions that I would have never asked myself before, which I will answer in future posts.

What if the Buddha never existed? Does it even matter?

What would be the advantage and disadvantage of believing in the narrative?

TTL Confucius and Lao Tzu: How to live your life

“Swarthmore is very yang – it needs more yin. People are not busy getting dumb.” – Steven Hopkins

This is the second of my series of Through the Lens (TTL), I posted my first one a while ago talking about how one could essentially create creativity called Through the Lens of Music: Engineering Creativity. In this post, I will try to understand what it means to be authentically human and how to live in harmony with the Tao through the lens of Confucius (Confucianism) and Lao Tzu (Taosim).

The idea of yin 阴 and yang 阳 is deeply rooted in many Chinese religions, especially focusing on the balance between the two. The yang is associated with the sun, a masculine / outgoing power, external displays, visible appearances. The yin, on the other hand, is associated with the moon, a feminine / inward power, weakness, flexibility, invisible, and the interior. While reading the Confucian Analects, section 26 in Book 11 confused me and started this questioning of what it meant to be authentically human.

In 11.26, Confucius is asking his disciples why somebody would be appreciative of them in order to appoint of them to lead a state:

After asking, Zilu speaks up immediately, saying that if he “were given charge of a state of a thousand chariots – even one hemmed in between powerful states, suffering from armed invasions and afflicted by famine – before three years were up [he] could infuse its people with courage and a sense of what is right.”

Zilu is dismissed disapprovingly by Confucius and is not chosen to be the leader probably because of his abrupt manner in answering him as well as the inauthentic, willful nature of his answer.

As opposed to Zengxi, who stated that he would choose to do something quite different from any of the other three disciples. Zengxi answered that “in the third month of Spring, once the Spring garments have been completed, [he] should like to assemble a company of five or six young men and six or seven boys to go bathe in the Yi River and enjoy the breeze upon the Rain Dance Altar, and then return singing to the Master’s house.”

When Confucius ultimately picked Zengxi, I was confused. Wouldn’t a ruler or leader want to have a strong sense of authority? Why would he pick somebody that would just go to the river and sing songs? I discussed this with my professor (Steven Hopkins) and started to understand why Confucius picked Zengxi.

Confucius ultimately picks Zengxi because as opposed to Zilu, Zengxi was not trying to impose a sense of authority onto other people. Zengxi exemplified a wu wei 無爲  (non-action) harmony, as opposed to Zilu’s willfulness of his ego. Confucius could tell this by Zengix’s musical bent, timeliness of not answering abruptly, having reluctance to speak about his aspirations, and his sense of spontaneous joy in the cultivated life conveyed by his answer. The idea of wu wei, doing things effortlessly and with flow, appealed a lot to me because it resonates strongly with the music improvisation and also ultimately seemed like the way I want to live my life.

Confucius could see that Zengxi understood himself and was not putting on a face, while the answers of the other three disciples seemed vulgar (very yang, prevalent in competitive colleges like Swarthmore). Li Chong described Zengxi as the only one having transcendent aspirations, with words that were pure and remote, meaning lofty and fitting. For Confucius, true government is effected through the superior virtue gained by ritual practice, and the task of the gentleman is to focus on self-cultivation and attaining a state of joyful harmony with the Way, Tao. In the Tao Te Ching (4), a similar shedding of ego is shared.

Tao is empty…

It blunts sharp edges,

Unties knots, Softens glare,

Becomes one with the dusty world.

Lao Tzu characterizes the sharp edges as the faces we put on to build up and defend our identities. The Tao breaks down this ego-fortress, which offers a false sense of security, because when one is too focused on his ego, life becomes a “me vs. everybody else experience” which isolates him from the natural whole. The awareness of the natural whole and wu-wei harmony exemplify both the ideal Confucian values of being “authentically human” and the Taoist sense of enlightenment when living in harmony with the Tao.

With regards to education and learning, Taoism and Confucianism seem to be at odds with each other. For instance, Lao Tzu claims in the Tao Te Ching that not knowing is supreme while knowing is faulty. In the Analects, Confucius claimed that one who thinks without learning will fall into danger. However, a deeper look into their philosophies of education reveal that they share the same beliefs on self-education as a means to deepen the awareness of the self. The Taoist seeks to understand the naturalness of everything as it exists at the present.

Knowledge is dangerous in the sense that it clogs the mind and makes it prejudiced.

From the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.

Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.

Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

Naming the things we observe creates a schism and rips our awareness away from the original whole. Instead of trying to know each separate piece, the Taoist tries to understand the whole, for the whole is the Tao. In Taoism, the key is not to know something, but to understand it. One goes about this through self-education. Furthermore, this kind of education is also natural; it just needs to be recognized as such and be developed to its fullest throughout one’s lifetime.

On the surface, the Analects seem different from this idea, Confucius stated:

“I once engaged in thought for an entire day without eating and an entire night without sleeping, but it did no good. It would have been better for me to have spent that time in learning.”

Confucius stresses the dangers of thinking in isolation. Rather than attempting to pointlessly reflect on one’s own, Confucius argues that  accumulated wisdom of the classics should form the very basis of one’s thinking. Thinking without the context of learning is comparable to randomly banging on a piano in ignorance to the conventions of music. A million monkeys given a million years might produce something, but it is better to start with the classics. The Xunzi gives an analogy, that climbing a hill and waving your arms does not make your arms any longer, but they can be seen from farther away. Shouting downwind does not make your voice any louder, but it can be heard more clearly. Someone who borrows a carriage and horses does not improve the power of his feet, but he can travel a thousand li. It may seem that Confucius is encouraging the pursuit of knowledge in the classics as the ultimate goal, yet it is that mastery and understanding of the classics that will allow one to fully practice the Tao and have an awareness of the self in relation to the world. Idle thinking without any guidance is a waste of time, and the Tao that arises from this type of mastery Confucius discusses parallels the Cook Ting and the Ox story from the Chuang Tzu (which s you should take your time to read, it is an amazing story).

In the story, Cook Ting seamlessly cuts an ox and states that he follows the Tao, here is a short excerpt from the whole, starting with Prince Wen Hui praising Cook Ting.

“Your method is faultless!”

“Method?” said the cook

Laying aside his cleaver,

“What I follow is Tao

Beyond all methods!”

“When I first began

To cut up an oxen

I would see before me

The whole ox

All in one mass.

“After three years

I no longer saw this mass.

I saw the distinctions.

“But now, I see nothing with the eye.  My whole being

Apprehends.

My senses are idle.  The spirit

Free to work without plan

Follows its own instinct

In order to act with wu wei (non-action) and follow the Tao, Cook Ting needed the mastery of having cut oxen for many years before. One cannot achieve this level of flow from aimlessly hacking at an ox without any training – that resembles banging on a piano without knowing the conventions of music. It is only after Ting attains mastery through years of training that he is able to step back and let the cutting happen naturally, he is then able to cut without cutting. The mastery of the classics (in the defense of a liberal arts education) is, in a deeper sense, used to understand wu wei and the nature of the present. For the Confucian, the understanding of the classics is a necessary vehicle to attaining true understanding of the Tao.

So this was my attempt at trying to make sense of and relate to a portion of what I’ve been studying in my Asian religion class. This is most intriguing class I have taken so far, and I have learned so much about myself. But the best part is that it will only get better as I read more about Eastern religions.


* I was working with Stephen Addiss’ and Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Tao Te Ching and Edward Slingerland’s translation of the Confucian Analects.